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John Norman Bishop "Bish" Brown


In her book, Wild about Reptiles, a Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of the UAE, Marijcke Jongbloed writes about Bish in her Dedication:

Once in a while, you meet a person who affects a change in you. Often it is a teacher, or someone who is good at what you would like to be good at. During my early years in the Emirates I came across such a person. His name was John Norman Bishop Brown, but everyone called him 'Bish'.

Bish was a speaker at the Al Ain Natural History Group one evening, and his talk about reptiles was fascinating, especially because he not only showed superb slides, but he even had taped sounds which some reptiles produce, mostly in their threat displays.

Bish had been in the Middle East since 1951, working in the oil industry, initially in Kuwait. There he set up the first natural history group of the region. He had fallen in love with the flora and fauna of the desert -- especially its reptiles. During the next forty-two years he went about observing, collecting, sharing his enthusiasm and expertise and passing on his love to other people. He could identify grasses and plants, and spot birds; he knew the tracks of insects and lizards, and could tell stories about pottery shards and arrow heads. His insatiable curiosity about desert habitats was so infectious that it was impossible not to fall under his spell. I certainly did!

Being with someone who knows so much can sometimes be overwhelming, but with Bish, it was just the opposite. He was modest, and had a good sense of humour, which made it fun to go on trips with him.

He came to the UAE in 1976 and soon established the Emirates Natural History Group (ENHG), together with Rob Western and Tony Harris. When Bish retired from ADMA-OPCO in 1985, he stayed on in Abu Dhabi doing preparatory work for a natural history museum that was to be established in the 'Old Fort'. He expanded and classified the ENHG's collections and took people on marvellous field trips. In 1991 he was given the first ENHG Award for Natural History (then called the Jashanmal award) and no one deserved it more.

Unfortunately the natural history museum in Abu Dhabi never materialised and Bish eventually went back to England in 1992.

His love for reptiles was special and he knew more about them than anyone I had ever met. I tried to persuade him to write a book so that others could benefit from his knowledge and enjoy his great pictures. In the end we decided that we would do the book together. In the summer of 1995 I travelled to the UK on a business trip and planned to visit him to discuss our project. When I called to make an appointment, his wife Beth told me that Bish had passed away the day before.

Later Beth sent me the slides of reptiles and the notes that Bish had made over the years, and they are the basis for this book. He had already prepared an introduction for the book, which I quote:

It is not possible to write a book without using other people's thoughts and findings. My knowledge of reptiles has been collected over the past forty years or so. I do not remember how I came by some of the information, having written it down without a reference. Some is personal observation, some has been passed on verbally or in correspondence with people who have studied the subject in detail, quite a lot has come from books. To everyone who has contributed in some way I give my thanks.

I hope that this guide will be a tribute to the man who most inspired me to love the desert and all that lives in it. -- MJ

The July/August 1995 issue of the Newsletter contained the sad news of the death of 'The Father of Local Natural History' , J.N.B. [Bish] Brown.

'Bish' Brown dies in UK

J.N.B. "Bish" Brown, formerly of ADMA-OPCO, and founder of the Emirates Natural History Group, died peacefully in hospital in England on August 3 after a long illness. He was 69.

He, his former employers and many friends in Abu Dhabi would all agree happily that, while Bish had, with quiet efficiency, carried out his tasks at ADMA-OPCO dutifully, he will be remembered mainly for his great contributions, stretching over 40 years, to the promotion of the study of the natural history of the Arabian Gulf.

Bish Brown was fortunate to be just young enough to escape service in the second world war, though only for a matter of weeks. Indeed, he had already completed flying training for the British Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm when the war ended, and remained proud of his fighter pilot training for the rest of his life.

He first came to the Gulf in 1951, to work in Kuwait, for what was to become the Kuwait Oil Company. An interest in the world outside oil, however, soon developed and Bish was one of the founders of the Ahmadi Natural History Group, the first such body established anywhere in the region.

Bish spent 20 years in Kuwait, amassing a wealth of information about the country's bird, animal and plant life and helping to lay the groundwork for subsequent studies of its natural history. A couple of years in the vastly different environment of Japan followed, but by 1976, he had returned to the Gulf, taking up a job in Sharjah.

Transferred to Abu Dhabi the next year, he and his wife Beth went home on leave, bought an old Land Rover, and proceeded to drive to Abu Dhabi in August 1977, all without the benefit of air conditioning.

Once back in the Emirates, he was a prime mover along with current British Ambassador Anthony Harris and an ADMA colleague, Rob Western, in the establishment of the Emirates Natural History Group, and settled down to nearly 50 years work on promoting the study of the UAE's environment.

Although he retired from ADMA-OPCO in 1985, he was back a couple of years later to work for the Centre for Documentation and Research in Abu Dhabi's Old Fort on classifying and expanding the ENHG's collections, and stayed until nearly 1992 before finally retiring from the Gulf.

The contribution made by Bish Brown to the study of natural history of the Emirates was unparalleled. In this modern age of specialist studies, he was remarkable in the breadth of his interests and the depths of his self-taught knowledge. There was no one better with whom to go on a field trip. He could identify grasses and plants, spot birds, catch small mammals, tell companions the names of lizards and snakes, identify the tracks of small insects, and round out the process with an impromptu lecture about the origin of a piece of pottery -- in short, a latter day Renaissance Man, harking back to a time when breadth of knowledge and interest was valued more highly than specialization in more and more tightly defined spheres of study.

Bish's great love, though, was reptiles, not just lizards, but snakes of all kinds. He could catch them, photograph them from close range without showing any fear of their venom, and produced the first, and so far the only, check list of UAE snakes. This pastime, or absorbing passion, had, of course, its odd aspects. With the amused tolerance of his wife, a large dustbin outside his front door was occasionally used as a receptacle where oil company friends would deposit live snakes caught in the desert for him to study.

Quiet and unassuming, Bish had, at the same time, an enormous ability to communicate his enthusiasm for natural history to others, and to teach them to understand and to love the varied delights of the UAE environment.

Sadly, his illness over the past couple of years prevented him from preparing for publication his vast collection of notes and photographs from four decades of studying the Gulf's natural history.



Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan